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‘This is balls to the wall,’ if he wins, O’Leary won’t commit to remaining Tory leader without a majority government

By Derek Abma      

Conservative leadership candidate Kevin O'Leary said he has a '100 per cent' chance of winning the party's leadership.

Winning: Conservative leadership candidate Kevin O'Leary, pictured in February at the Side Door in Ottawa where he hosted a party during the Manning Centre conference. Pressed to clarify last week if he would leave his post as party leader if the Conservatives end up with a minority government or in opposition after the 2019 election, he said: 'I don’t have contingency plans on failure. That doesn’t work.' The Hill Times photograph by Jake Wright
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Polls indicate Kevin O’Leary has a good chance of becoming the next leader of the federal Conservative Party, but all bets are off on him sticking around if the party loses the next election or ends up with a minority government.

“I’ve said to the caucus, I’m going to deliver a majority mandate or fire me,” Mr. O’Leary said in an interview last week with The Hill Times from the Métropolitain Brasserie in downtown Ottawa. “That’s it. This is balls to the wall. I can’t do what I need to do in this country without a majority mandate. I can’t cast out the virus of Trudeau without a majority mandate. … You have to go into the mandate with people understanding what you’re going to do.”

When pressed to clarify if he would leave his post as party leader if the Conservatives end up with a minority government or in opposition after the 2019 election, he said: “I don’t have contingency plans on failure. That doesn’t work. That’s not how I run my business. I set a goal; I achieve it, the majority of the time. That’s why I’m successful. I don’t waste my energy planning on failure.”

Mr. O’Leary was clear that if he doesn’t win the party leadership, he has no intention of running for a seat in the House of Commons.

And if he does win, he’s not sure if he’ll be in a rush to get a seat either. Mr. O’Leary cited Justin Trudeau’s (Papineau, Que.) activity as Liberal leader before becoming prime minster as an example for how his time might be best spent. Despite being an MP, Mr. O’Leary said Mr. Trudeau spent little time in the House, and instead was out drumming up support.

“[Mr. Trudeau] basically went to universities, colleges, and technical schools and dragged that new constituency of the 18- to 35-year-old into the race and got 80 per cent of the vote from them, which is fantastic,” Mr. O’Leary said.

He noted how the Stephen Harper-led Conservatives had a similar number of votes in 2015 as in 2011 (5.6 million versus 5.8 million, respectively) but “missed that whole demographic” of younger voters. Part of Mr. O’Leary’s sales pitch is that he can win that youth vote.

“There’s never been a candidate in the Conservative Party in the last 20 years that has done what I’ve done: get 1,000 students at [a] Queen’s [University rally]. … So I’m going to go college by college by college.”

Mr. O’Leary said, based on visits he’s made to post-secondary schools during the leadership campaign, he thinks Mr. Trudeau’s support among younger voters is vulnerable.

“Those students are pissed at Trudeau,” he said. “He promised them jobs and sunny ways. All they have is a bare light bulb in the basement of their parents’ homes, where they live. They’re really unhappy.”

Polling done by Mainstreet Research for iPolitics showed Mr. O’Leary was the first choice for almost 25 per cent of Conservative party members asked between March 21 and 24. That put him firmly in first place and was up about three points from a week earlier. Maxime Bernier (Beauce, Que.) was second at 18 per cent, and Andrew Scheer (Regina-Qu’Appelle, Sask.) was third with 12 per cent.

At one point during last week’s interview, Mr. O’Leary went as far as to put his odds of winning the leadership at “100 per cent.” At another juncture in the discussion, in relation to how things might work with the preferential-ballot system in this contest, he said “nobody can forecast that outcome with certainty,” while adding that he’s “extremely optimistic,” based on internal figures.

He declined to get into the specifics of why he thinks the numbers—when considering who’ll get second- and potentially third-or fourth-choice votes—work out in his favour.

“At the end of the day, the membership only has one decision to make: who can beat Justin Trudeau? … I’m it. Show me one other candidate that can take that guy down. And that’s what we’re going to have to do. This is going to be a fight. Good against evil. Light against darkness. That’s what this is. It’s an exorcism. “

As over the top Mr. O’Leary is in his criticisms of Mr. Trudeau, he has not attacked his Conservative rivals, despite being a target for them. For example, he’s been called a “loser” by Mr. Bernier and a “chicken” by Lisa Raitt (Milton, Ont.), who’s also launched a Stop Kevin O’Leary website that says he’s “wrong for the Conservative Party and wrong for Canada.”

“I don’t attack fellow Conservatives,” Mr. O’Leary said. “I go after the problem we actually have in this country; his name is Justin Trudeau. I spend my energy focusing on his very ineffective management skills. So I don’t waste my time attacking other candidates. I don’t find that very fruitful.

“Investing your energy in bashing your fellow candidates seems like a complete waste of time to me. That is not going to endear you to members. It doesn’t help the party. And it certainly distracts the energy away from the ultimate goal, which is to remove Justin Trudeau from power because he’s such an incompetent leader.”

Kevin O’Leary is confident on his chances of winning the Conservative leadership. The Hill Times photograph by Derek Abma

Mr. O’Leary said he will not hold grudges against leadership rivals who have attacked him.

“The nature of a leadership race is a civil war,” he said. “You, as a candidate, have to decide what your strategy is. I don’t tell other candidates what to do. … I understand rhetoric and noise and all that.”

He laughed at being called a “chicken” by Ms. Raitt after he refused to participate in a debate in Edmonton.

“I thought the chicken was terrific,” he said, adding that he was considering having a picture of himself taken in a chicken suit. “When you see a guy in a chicken suit, you have to feel sorry for him. Something went wrong in his career.”

If he wins the leadership, Mr. O’Leary—a businessman and TV personality who’s one of the few people in this leadership race who’s not a sitting or former MP—said he’s ready “reboot” his relationship with the other leadership candidates and caucus members, most of whom have thrown their support behind someone else.

“The way I look at the caucus is they are the board of directors of the Conservative Party,” he said. “I’ve served on many boards in my time. I understand how the politics work. We will work together internally. We may have our differences; we will keep them within our closed walls. Then we will represent a consistent front to the Canadian people in terms of policy and direction.”

Mr. Bernier’s “loser” comment came after Mr. O’Leary went public with concerns that some within the Conservative leadership race were creating fake memberships. While Mr. O’Leary did not publicly point his finger at any particular candidate, reports indicated Mr. Bernier’s team was under scrutiny—and he came out swinging against Mr. O’Leary.

Mr. O’Leary, meanwhile, said he had no idea what campaign might have been creating fraudulent memberships when he came forward with concerns, based not on concrete evidence, but on anecdotes he was hearing from party organizers.

Given his experience with highly scrutinized and regulated financial markets, he said this kind of deception didn’t sit right with him.

“If you’re breaching integrity or you’re breaching covenants of compliance, you’re basically out of business,” Mr. O’Leary said. “Not having been involved in the political process before, I was quite surprised to start hearing about these strategies from organizers that have been used apparently for decades.”

He added: “When you live in my world, there is zero tolerance for this. You’re at risk at losing your livelihood in perpetuity; it’s over. So I don’t know how else to deal with this.”

The Conservative Party came out a day after Mr. O’Leary went public and said it had found 1,351 party memberships under the names of people who had not bought them, and they were cancelled.

Mr. O’Leary lauded the party for dealing with the issue quickly, adding that he hopes it is still trying to find out which campaigns were responsible.

He likened the importance of honesty and transparency in politics to the relationship one has with a spouse.

“The first time you cheat on them and lie to them, you lose 50 per cent of your equity forever and you never get it back,” he said. “There’s no way that relationship is ever going to be the same. … So you should treat the voter that way, too. It’s better to tell the truth all the time so at least, even if they don’t agree with you, you have the trust.”

The deadline for becoming a Conservative Party member in time to vote in the leadership contest was March 28. Mr. O’Leary said his campaign signed up 35,336 new members, and he’s willing to have each one audited.

Mr. O’Leary said he hopes that by coming forward with his concerns, which was about two weeks before the membership deadline, he had some effect on the way this race is playing out.

“If I were a candidate—and I’m not pointing any fingers—that was about to submit fraudulent memberships, I would think multiple times before I did that, because you know there’s a heightened scrutiny,” he said.

dabma@hilltimes.com

The Hill Times

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